Interview with Greg Kahn: Documentary Photographer by Safia Southey


Greg Kahn (b. 1981) is an American documentary fine art photographer. Kahn grew up in a small coastal town in Rhode Island, and attended The George Washington University in Washington D.C. In August of 2012, Kahn co-founded GRAIN Images with his wife Lexey, and colleague Tristan Spinski. 

How much of your work is on assignment, compared to individual projects?

If I was wealthy I wouldn’t be taking assignments, I would just be doing the things I wanted to do. There are passion projects, and then assignment work, and assignment work is how I make my money. It’s not always editorial, it’s anything – it could be a commercial job, three days in a studio doing portraiture for a commercial client, or even the New York Times saying, “Hey here’s the story, can you take pictures of this?” I will take anything as long as it matches creatively with what I want to do. I haven’t been tested on this but I don’t think I would take things that didn’t fit into my moral code, I just wouldn’t feel right about it. That’s where money comes into play. If Coca-Cola wanted me to shoot an ad campaign, and I’m not really down with Coca-Cola, but an ad campaign would be a good chunk of money. I think we all go through that and question it and talk to each other to ask, “What do you feel about this?”

What originally attracted you to social justice issues such as mass incarceration and the forecloses crisis in Florida?

I was in Florida and working for a newspaper, and one of the things that I noticed when working on a story was the recidivism rate that was happening particularly in the area where I was living. I’m a White male, about as privileged as it gets, and I heard in Florida about the recidivism rate of Black males coming in and out of prison. They have no money by the time they get out of prison and are dropped at a bus stop where there are drug dealers waiting saying, “hey do you want to make some money real quick?” It makes sense why the system keeps churning, and I wanted to photograph and tell the story of someone who is trying to stay out of returning prison. I think it worked out really well, I met this wonderful guy with two kids who was trying really hard, and I followed him everywhere. He went to job fairs, he was being the quintessential example of someone making the effort to not go back to prison. And people still found fault, they said, “oh he’s got too big of a TV, he’s clearly not spending his money wisely.” And that just cemented the idea that people don’t generally understand – he has two kids, when he needs to get work done he can turn on TV. We all do it! Why are you criticizing this guy? Building off that, you just keep going deeper into these issues.

Identity for me is everything. I’m fascinated by how we identity ourselves, how we want other people to see us. A lot of the projects end up asking what is the construct that people are using to say this is who I am, this is where I’m from, this is where I want to be. And a lot of that builds off each other.

How do you usually choose your stories, do you go in with research and a clear idea or does it develop with time?

Both, really it can be both. Sometimes I read something and think oh that’s an interesting fact, and research it a bit more, and that turns into a story. Or sometimes there’s an idea and you go into saying oh I want to look at mass incarceration or youth culture. In Cuba, for example, it was actually being there and stumbling across some kids that actually spurred the story. I didn’t read it anywhere and didn’t come up with the concept off hand, it was that I experienced it and thought this was something that wasn’t being shown enough, there is a cultural barrier that people find as mysterious.

Some of the ideas I have for projects aren’t based on any experiences, but on something I’ve read. Reading long term stories are super important because I’ve learned a lot about constructing a narrative from them just because they’re so masterfully done. Places like the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine do such an amazing job of telling long form stories that it helps me as a photographer as I’ve learned about storytelling through them. The combination of that and actual experience is key.

Do you find there to be big differences between your work within the US compared to your international work?

Logistically yes, and it’s culturally different in some ways. But fundamentally we’re the same, we want the same things, we strive, we’re influenced by the same culture. I think that it’s something that if you invest the time and effort into it, you can accomplish telling that story anywhere.

Why did you decide to pursue photography in the first place?

I got into photography when I was in high school, and I got a week-long scholarship which meant missing school so i was all in. I went to California for a week to study with National Geographic photographer, mostly on the nature side. We went to the San Diego Zoo and photographed animals and they gave us tips and tricks on how to do, and then after that I was so hooked, that was it. I went to college and George Washington University and studies photography there, it was a little more artistic. when I got out, I was like, how do I get to Nat Geo? How do I end up there? I didn’t even start in photography at that point because i needed to pay bills, so I was a webs designer. And I hated being in the office, I hated it! And I saw a magazine article about workshops, and thought cool, why don’t I do that? I signed up and it kicked my ass, and it made me a 10-times better photographer in one week. After that I found a newspaper job, then another newspaper job, and after that I decided to go freelance. National Geographic does such a great job with telling stories with their captivating narratives, and it doesn’t matter if it’s domestic or abroad, the way that they tell stories is the best I feel is out there.

You’ve worked for several different news agencies such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, National Geographic; what’s been your favorite?

I like interesting stories and they come from all over. The first place I’m typically pitching is National Geographic because my stories align with them best, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place I would want to see work. I’ve got a list of dream clients, but the funny thing is that you never know when a great assignment is going to come along and where it’s going to come from. It can come from a publication that not a lot of people know about, it doesn’t have to be the most famous publication, it’s just a matter of what the story is. The first thing I did for the Atlantic was a wild story about teen sexting, which is a difficult assignment, but it gave me a window into doing something that wasn’t visually set up on a platter for you. And then they came back and said here’s mass incarceration; they always come up interesting stories. The Washingtonian is a regional publication mostly for people in DC, but every assignment I’ve done for them has been so much fun. You never know where you’re going to get good assignments.

How do you see photography as a medium changing?

Photography is in weird place right not because the barrier to entry is so much lower now than it has been, which is good because it allows everyone has something to say to visually tell their story. However, there is a sense the images are losing value, which is tough because you want images to say something and for people to see them and say this is one-of-a-kind and important, and when you flood the market with too much imagery there is too much supply and not enough demand and you end up making images possess less value overall. There is a give and take with what’s happening. I do know that photography is an important medium using and will continue to be, but where it goes I’m not sure.

You’re seeing big magazines hire photographers based on Instagram. It’s different landscape than just a couple years ago, as a photographer you need to stay light on your feet and be able to get into whatever is the next trend.

I love it, but on the business side of things it’s terrifying because you don’t know, as a freelancer, when the next time your phone is going to ring or the next time someone is going to send you an email. I’ve gone two months without getting a single email or phone call and just been like “Is that it, am I done? I guess now I’ll drive for Uber or Lyft.” You never know! But I guess the idea is that over time you just learn to have faith that with hard work and being persistent in the work you’re doing that you will eventually get another call, another email, and that it will keep you afloat. Freelance is really high-highs and really low-lows, and sometimes you get a dream assignment and then there’s nothing. You need to plan and save because you never can predict what will follow.

What are some of the ethical concerns you have when navigation others’ hardships?

There are a lot of photographers having a hard look at the industry itself, especially the exoticization of other cultures. It’s a very real thing, and something that I’m very conscious of when I travel, because I never want someone to look at the pictures and feel like it’s just another white male colonial viewpoint. I really want to change the way that I photograph so that the images say something and don’t fall into a stereotype. I’m very cognizant that I don’t go down that road.

You don’t want to get into photographing things like homeless people who stick out on the street with the mindset of “oh that’s not normal.” There are a lot of easy traps to fall into, but it’s necessary to question yourself and what the intentions are and why. When I worked with a newspaper before, I learned my legal rights that I could photograph anyone in public without their consent. And while I still work within this frame now, I consider it slightly differently. If it’s something that requires a genuine moment I usually won’t say anything, but if I’m doing something where I tend to collaborate more with the person I’m photographing, making it more of a portrait than just a fly on the wall, I like to talk to them and ask how this represents them. I take total input from the person I’m photographing so that it makes a better image, and so that it makes more sense. They know I’m there, there is hardly any a situation where someone doesn’t know a photographer is taking their picture so it’s silly to me that photographers try to pretend that they’re a fly on a wall. Personally, I can’t just take photos of people because it just feels like taking, it feeds into that colonial, conqueror kind of view.

This project I recently did in Columbia, I photographed people who were basically homeless, refugees from Venezuela living on the street. I didn’t want them to not have their dignity, I want to capture them being proud of who they are and didn’t want to show them as just homeless and poor in a foreign country. They all had past lives, and I want to show them as human beings with a sense of self-worth.

Just over a year ago these kinds of conversations were not being had at all, and I think the photography community is going through a very painful yet necessary process to correct these things that have existed for a long time. And it’s sad because a lot of the idols that we looked up to are part of the problem, but I think it’s okay to understand someone’s work and know it differently, and compartmentalize these things so that it doesn’t ruin the body of work. But when you understand the person who made it and you think about the work in today’s context it changes, and that’s important.

People take photos of the stereotypical moments and colorful outfits, and those do exist, but they aren’t the full story. The stories I want to tell exist outside of the narrow focuses that have existed for so long.

What is your opinion on photojournalism?

I’m starting to have a problem with photojournalism for nothing else than the moral authority that photojournalists claim in saying that their work is the purest form of photography. I was one of the carriers of the photojournalism banner for a long time, and upon going freelance started developing other forms of photography, I realized that just because a photo doesn’t hold to the ethical standards that photojournalism has placed on it doesn’t mean that it’s not telling a non-fiction story. For example, Daniella Zalcman has this story Signs of Your Identity for First Nation People and the schools they were placed into to indoctrinate them into Canadian or US culture. She’s gone all over the world documenting these people who were placed into colonial schools to wipe out their identity, and it’s without a doubt some of the most important work that’s been done in the recent years. Her photographs are a portrait combined with a landscape so that they make a double image, which is just breathtaking, just gorgeous stuff. It would be called a photo illustration in the photojournalism world, but it tells the most effective story about what is happening – so why are we dismissing it? Photojournalism says that it’s unethical, but is it? The goal is to inform people and to have them care, and to make a difference. If that story is accomplishing it, I don’t care how you do it. It’s non-fiction, she’s not making anything up, she’s not taking something that doesn’t exist or photoshopping things in. Photojournalism creates such a narrow structure for photography exists, that anything that falls outside of it gets called fake and phony and manipulative.

So that’s where I find a problem with photojournalism, as the people who carrier it’s banner have become even more hardline. Even when it comes to toning, they say oh that’s toned too much, but what would you say about black-and-white photos then? And if you go to someone’s house to take photos, they’re going to clean up before you get there. Nothing is completely pure. This notion that photojournalists never effect the scene, don’t even move water bottles, so what? How would that impact the story? Why does that matter? And I think that’s what photojournalism isn’t doing, it’s not changing why the rest of the world evolves. There are so many amazing projects that would never fit into the narrow vision of photojournalism, but told stories that made people more engaged and more aware than photojournalism can do with its restrictions. I love what photojournalism is meant to do, but I hate how it’s become so strict that it doesn’t allow for true story telling in a non-fiction way that is effective. It’s cutting off its nose to spite its face, as it won’t be able to expand its idea of its own genre.

And who are your favorite photographers right now?

I’d put Carolyn Drake at the top of the list, and Alec Soth for sure. There’s this fashion photographer I’m really into right now, Erik Madigan Heck.

What advice do you have for young photographers trying to break into the industry?

I would just have to say follow your passion. One of my pet peeves is unsolicited advice, because I honestly don’t know myself. I’m publishing my first book now with my Cuba work, and it’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also a learning experience and sinking into a lot of money into something makes you question if you should have done it. I’m still making mistakes all the time, so all I can say is that if it’s something you really want to do, then do it.  And don’t be afraid to continue with it and when you come up against challenges have faith that you’ll get through it and keep developing into the photographer you want to be. Many people believe that you get to this stage where you just are who you are, but I’m still pushing myself to get better and think differently and come up with better ideas. Myself and my collective that I’m a part of were just in the South of France and pushing each other to get better at our craft, and that’s a long-life journey. You look at someone like Alec Soth, and his book on Mississippi, he defined an entire generation of photographers. And since then he’s continued to develop his style, he’s evolved again and again and again and every time he’s mastered whatever he set out to do. I look at him as someone who a lot of people can look up to because he constantly finds new ways of photographing someone where he doesn’t get stale, and his ability to tell stories evolve.

North Korea: Part Four by Safia Southey


North Korea is a strangely idyllic world. Pyongyang, looking like a 1960’s film depicting the future with it’s space-age skyscrapers peppered with neon lights, is filled with bikes, pastel colored buildings, and a focus on the collective goals rather than that of the individual. People are careful and avoid eye contact with foreigners at all costs, and the streets are clean with not a speck of litter visible anywhere. People are seemingly happy, immersed in pride and adoration for their country and leader, but it is only due to their constant busyness, complete ignorance of the rest of the world, and the intense regime of propaganda imposed on them daily. Locals are severely limited, having to gain travel permits to enter or exit any city in the country, and must provide rationale for any internal movement. However, things are somewhat less restricted than I previously assumed, with people out ice-skating, children exploring playgrounds, and locals even playing beer-pong with us. Resources are limited, with lack of power forcing people to carry around flashlights in order to make their way through the pitch-black streets and underground tunnels at night, and I am confident that food is much more scarce than my tour would lead me to believe. There is a vast oversupply of labor and a lack of genuine work to do so people are overworked with menial jobs to make up for the difference, rewarded with food rations instead of wages, only to be awarded actually money as a potential bonus.


There is a stark lack of factual knowledge in the country, but as one of my guides explained, “what locals lack in information, they make up for with life experience. While they may at times seem naïve, they have lived long and difficult lives.” North Korea is the optimal example of a dystopian society, and I am extremely interested in seeing the progress of one of the mostly unusually ran countries in the world. From hotels to museums to any old teahouse, everything seemed to open up just for us; it is bizarre how much heating and energy is used in order to keep up appearances for the tiny amount of tourists that visit in winter. While I am more than confident that my experience was a highly curated façade of the true country, I am happy to have seen it for myself, if only to know that it was the wrong thing to do.


The amount of money I spent on this tour contributing to the economy and in turn the regime is menial in comparison to the destructive impact that the tourists have on the local community and way that the society is formed. I understand that it would only hurt the locals if the tourism industry disappeared as it employs so many people, but I genuinely believe that the exploitation of DPRK residents and general havoc that foreigners have. From taking pictures as if they were in a zoo to playing music and being loud and often quite disrespectful at monuments and public buildings (even libraries) to forcing restaurants and shops to open up solely for tourists, foreigners create an incredibly destructive environment, perpetuating the government’s child labor and ability to force people to create a fake society for visitors. I admit that I am a complete hypocrite, that I took photos and bought souvenirs and supported this entire tourism industry, but I cannot express the vast amount of shame that I now feel.

My overall advice: don’t go to North Korea, at least not for a simple tour. I am considering returning for a school program, after discussing it at length with Ms. Kim, but I am met with intense hesitancy. The country is amazing, beautiful, interesting to see – but you will not answer any questions; rather, you will just perpetuate a long lasting cycle of tourism and exploitation of the local communities, and if you’re anything like me, be overcome with an intense sense of guilt.


North Korea: Part Three by Safia Southey


The next day, half our group hung-over from drinking too much snake vodka, we arrived at the highly anticipated mausoleum. We had received strict instructions for this event – no jeans, no sneakers (I had to pick up a pair of flats in Beijing as my normal Adidas were apparently not acceptable), men must wear ties, skirts and dresses must be at or below the knee, shoulders must be covered, no smiling, no laughing, no speaking, no photography (they confiscated our phones and electronics), bowing three times at each leader’s tomb, etcetera, etcetera. As soon as I entered the mausoleum, I knew I would not be able to follow all the rules; two wax figures of Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il, each 3 meters tall immediately brought a grin to my face. I would love to describe the room but the only thing I can recall was how bizarre and excessive the entire experience was, but that was only the beginning. Walking in lines of 4, we entered the rooms holding the bodies of the 'great' leaders; it would have been a strange experience in itself just bowing to the huge leaders in glass boxes illuminated by red light from the ceiling, but the sobbing Korean women in traditional colorful dresses added whole other element. Crowds of women and soldiers accompanied us into the museum, visibly upset at the lives of their past leaders. I smile a lot when I’m uncomfortable, so viewing this made me so close to laughing that I thought I was going to get deported, or worse. The women looked genuinely distraught, but I am convinced that they are taught to cry at events and monuments such as this, essentially dishonoring their leader if they do not. We silently shuttled past all the medals, honorary degrees, and awards that Kim Il Sun and Kim Jung Il received from different countries during their years in office, shocked at the mere amount. It was overall a very surreal experience, being immersed in such a sense of national pride.


This sense of patriotism transferred over quite seamlessly into our next big visit, to the War Museum. Filled with captured US tanks, fighter jets, spy ships, bombs that “the United States Aggressive Forces attempted to exterminate Korea with,” and pretty much anything that could be used to humiliate and discredit the United States, the museum had a very clear version of history and a message to spread. We were seated in a small theatre to watch a film called, “What Divided Korea?” the answer to which, if you were wondering, is the United States. In the exhibit called “Atrocities Committed by US Imperialists,” the guides explained how America used chemical and biological warfare in conflict, dropping poisonous insects and napalm in order to exterminate their enemies and “kill as many Asians as possible.” To be honest, most of the information they were offering about the United States is most likely true or at least based in fact, although I believe they greatly exaggerated some aspects of American influence and demonized intention that were perhaps not as malicious as initially intended, while also minimizing other countries’ influence. We watched a panorama (the largest panorama in Asia, apparently) version of war and conflict with the United States, filled with dead US soldiers and burnt American flags, overlaid with propaganda and eerie traditional music. I purchased a book called “US Imperialists Started the Korean War” on my way out, to delve more into this version of history. Our tour guide gushed over the exhibit back in the bus, speaking of how important it is in order for school children to learn about the past conflicts using such proof as the museum provides (how reliable that proof is, I am not entirely convinced).



We followed up the war museum appropriately with a trip to the shooting range, where I shot my first gun (an AK47). Most fascinating part was how there were absolutely no regulations for the guns, as they were being tossed pretty much anywhere, and I’m a little cautious of any place that allows me to shoot a gun.


My opinion of the country and feeling towards this trip changed dramatically on the fourth day, and now I feel uncomfortable being here and sharing any of the pictures I have taken so far. We visited an elementary school, which I was vastly looking forward to, as I absolutely love talking to children. However, as soon as we arrived it was like nothing I had ever experienced; the children were waiting for us in the courtyard holding on to silks, ready to dance for us in an elaborate weaving ceremony. After they finished we were hustled into a room with a group of children in ballet costumes who immediately broke into absurd acrobatic tricks that made their small bodies look like spaghetti; definitely not things I believed eight year olds could do. A string of performances followed, including singing, instruments, Ping-Pong, more dance, English language skills, and even jump rope.


I believe I started crying at about Ping-Pong. What I was watching was not school, rather an exhibition. Putting aside the anti-America propaganda lining the walls with imagery of rockets and “satellites,” it was the optimum example of exploitation, with these children putting on full on performances with complete costumes for random tourists coming in 1-2 times per month in non-tourists seasons and 1-2 times per week in warmer months. I knew that people were not able to choose their careers, that the government chose it for them, but it was horrifying to see how forced it was at such a young age. It makes economic sense for careers to be determined by skill, but makes for horrendous human rights conditions. People were in awe at the performances, wondering how long it took for the children to achieve this level of talent, but to be honest I do not want to know the conditions that brought this about. I was genuinely afraid for any student who played a wrong note or forgot a single step, I could see the flash of fear run across their face with a quick look to their teacher every time it happened. It was the most forced and disingenuous show of education that I could imagine – especially as it was winter break and school is not currently in session, meaning that the students literally came in specifically to entertain us. Even the language classes were a performance with the children singing, “I like English, this is my classroom, I love it here;” it was as if I was watching a cult in the midst of brainwashing the youth. It was child labor, a way to remind foreigners of how impressive their society is when in fact it just reminded me of how horribly messed up it was; it was a factory, churning out talented workers from the time they are born against their own will for the improvement of the nation. It is a perfect demonstration of community over the individual, with complete disregard for decisions or human rights.


The rest of the day seems like an angry blur now, including a trip to a library where the guide blasted Beatles in a reading room in order to impress us with their technology, completely disregarding the people actually working in there. In fact, they turned on the lights in a different reading room specifically for us; I genuinely cannot fathom the amount of special treatment tourists get in order to make the country seem so much better from afar. We visited a large tower, some museums, historical sites, the metro system. The most interesting occurrence that happened was when we arrived at some museum a couple minutes too early and watched as the people scrambled to turn on the lights and look busy, opening up solely for our arrival and most likely closing as soon as we left. This seems to be a common occurrence. I asked our guide about feminism during this time, if women desired more power in society. She told me that men and women were equal in the DPRK, women are respected and given the same rights, especially if the woman have lots of children. Like most questions I ask here, I was left unsatisfied with the mostly defensive and vague answers possible. 

The night continued with bowling, beer, and karaoke – a very strange capitalist American-esque experience in a very anti-American society. The next morning we arose at an early 5:30am to board our flights and trains. I was supposed to take the 23-hour train back to Beijing, but I apparently misread the information and realized that you can only use the 72-hour China visa if arriving by international flight, so at the last minute we had to squeeze me onto an already full flight. It was very chaotic and at times I thought I was going to be stuck in North Korea for quite a bit longer (the next flight was days away). As Kim, my incredibly sweet DPRK guide, sat with me, she asked me how I liked the trip. I responded with vague compliments, knowing that I couldn’t give my true opinions. She smiled, “Please tell your friends back home that we are not the same as western media portrays us, we are just like all of you. I hope you come back soon."


North Korea: Part Two by Safia Southey


We were woken up the following morning with a power outage, lasting long enough for us to scramble to get ready for the day in the dark. Following a traditional Korean breakfast of spicy soup and rice, we embarked on the three-hour bus journey to the DMZ. Our ride was filled with the information about reunification from our guide Ms. Kim, who explained that “reunification is the greatest desire of all the Korean people” as we rode down Tongil (reunification) Street. “Who is the leader of aggression war, and who is really working for reunification?” she posed.

Outside Pyongyang, the land flatted out leading to absolute nothingness covered in snow, with the sun peeking out of the mountains in the distance. Every so often we would emerge from our cozy bus into the frigid -11 degrees cold to look at monuments or stop at teahouses and souvenir shops, during which all the tourists swarmed around hand painted propaganda posters depicting the destruction of the United States, promising a future with a united Korea. On the bus, our guides spoke of nuclear war, saying that they only add to their arsenal for protection and would never threaten countries without proper provocation. “We welcome foreign friends, but will give no mercy to the enemy,” our ex-military host warned us. He told us that everyone wants to serve the army in the DPRK in order to serve their country, but the government refuses people and forces them to go to university for the advancement of the economy.


Eventually, we were in the demilitarized zone, the DMZ. A DPRK solider patrolled us around, instructing us about the history of the division between the Koreas and stressing the desire for reunification. With maps behind him, he recounted tales of the North invading South Korea when they were different dynasties, as the South was too heavily influenced by Japan in what the North considers the 'Japanese occupation'. The USSR and China came to defend the North, while the US and other Western nations defended the South. The DPRK soldier proudly spoke of how they captured the American ships and massacred their military, leading to the “shameful defeat of the United States.” He gestured at the tables holding the armistice text, with a North Korean flag as well as a UN flag, proclaiming that “the US was so ashamed that instead of using their own flag they used that of the United Nation.” It was incredibly interesting to see how proud they were of this US defeat, which I am sure Americans would not necessarily agree with.

Looking over the border, we saw South Korean soldiers manning the area, which is apparently extremely rare as both sides usually trade off days to welcome tourists. There seemed to be a United Nations delegation visiting the site, potentially because of the talks that occurred the previous day between South Korea and North Korea regarding the Olympics. Our hosts were hopeful about the talks and what kind of agreement the sides would reach, not only for the Summer Games but for future relations and potential reunification.


We left, after taking a considerable amount of photos of and with any willing soldier, off to our next stop: lunch. We stopped at a little house, where 13 different dishes were ready for every guest; I would love to describe what each one was, but I genuinely have no idea. The only thing I am confident of was the Sweet Meat Soup – otherwise known as dog meat. Surprisingly tender! After lunch and finishing our delicious dog soup, we embarked on another journey to a factory which produced ginseng products, with propaganda lining the walls telling the women to keep up production in order to help 'the best country in the world'. The factory was eerie, with the sense that they started production as soon as we stepped in the door and were already finishing by the time we left, as they hurried us out the door to prevent seeing the stopping of conveyer belts. Women guided bottles down the line, ensuring to look busy and happy although I am not sure what exactly they were doing; it was as if we were watching a play.

On the bus, I asked our guide as to why there were so many bicycles on the road rather than cars, “it’s strange here,” he responded, “owning a car here is like owning a private jet in your country, and mostly reserved for companies and foreigners. Same thing with the phone lines – we have two cellphone carriers, one for foreigners and one for locals, and they are completely mutually exclusive.” Soldiers shoveled snow on the road to make way for cars; I had been thinking about this a lot since the airport, considering whether this was just because labor was cheaper than machinery. I came to the conclusion that it was to keep the people of the country busy with their work, distracted from other national issues and with the quality of life that they may otherwise be unhappy with. It was similar in our hotel: our rooms were cleaned twice a day, not because they particularly valued cleanliness, but because nobody was allowed to work for only half a day.


Next stop was the super market: a capitalist wonderland filled with Korean rip-offs of European candies, washing machines, flat screen televisions, live fish, chewing gum, and even an authentic American waffle stand. It was as if we stepped into a different world, created only for the richest of the citizens and to impress curious visiting foreigners. Suddenly, people had phones, and were using Chinese chat apps and debit cards; you would have never known you were in North Korea. The market is the only place where you can get local DPRK currency, but it’s illegal to take any with you out of the country. With what I thought was chocolate (actually rice candies), Soju, some authentic DPRK chewing gum, and 15000 smuggled North Korean Yuan, we went to dinner.

DPRK typically meals start with appetizers, such as kimchi and salad, followed by a number of main meat dishes – also appetizers, followed by bi bim bap, the actual entrée, followed by rice or fruit or yogurt for dessert. It’s a lot. At our dinner, our waitresses sang happy birthday to one of the members of our tour and presented him with an enormous cake (which I assisted in devouring, as if there wasn’t already enough food for us). It was definitely an interesting experience, as people sipped rice wine or poured ginseng vodka into their teacups. We were all excited for the next event, a showing of the first European-North Korean film in the DPRK international theatre – Comrade Kim Goes Flying.


Best. Movie. Ever. The movie was about a young North Korean construction worker, passionate about her job and about helping her nation. Always enamored with acrobatics and the circus, Comrade Kim moves to Pyongyang for a new construction project, and auditions for the circus even though she is scared of heights. Although she horribly fails and gets made fun of by the judges (“miners should stay underground”), she trains, teaching her fellow workers tricks along the way. The movie heavily focused on the unity of the working class, needing to work together to improve the nation and show their power. After eventually leaving her job to pursue acrobatics (with the permission and encouragement of her father, grandmother, and supervisors, of course), and doing tenuous training to accomplish the quadruple flip trapeze act, she quits! She gives up, she misses doing construction and being a part of the working class. However, her mentor tells her that she has to continue for “Our Leader,” as he wants Korea to have the best acrobatics team in the world. She returns to the circus, accomplishes the trick, and it is hinted that she gets married to her trapeze partner (after his mother gives full permission/arranges it).

So. Lots to process. It was exactly what I assumed it would be in terms of promoting equality amongst citizens, necessity for unity, power of the working class, the love for work and extreme productivity, the need to please the leaders, and the desire to improve the country. As well, constant happiness and kindness! Comrade Kim had a rough time in this movie, but with the help and permission of literally everyone around her (nearly all men), she was able to accomplish her dream. Everyone was just so helpful, from random men on the bus, security guards, supervisors at work, workers at different firms – everyone. And in response, she Never. Stopped. Smiling. Even when crying. Never. I never knew how happy North Korea was! I was not expecting some elements in the movie, such as the slight romantic overtones, lying to supervisors and workers in order to get around the rules (in order to help the greater good, but still strange), the tints of humor (possibly not on purpose), and the joining of the circus. Both in terms of its cinematography and screenplay, it had a little ways to go, as most scenes were filmed in front of an obvious photo backdrop and the writing was a little too to the point, at times making very little logical sense. But, it all made for fantastic entertainment, genuinely recommend it to every person who may possibly have the opportunity to watch it.

At night, we visited the rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel where Otto Warmbier was staying when he allegedly stole a propaganda poster and was arrested, terrorized, and returned to the United States, where he died. It is said that he went exploring into the forbidden fifth floor; on the elevator, there was no button for floor 5.


North Korea: Part One by Safia Southey


As the plane began its descent, vast areas of empty terrain divided into sharp rectangles was all I could see. Construction sites peppered with mountains and covered in snow filled the land, with the promise of new development in the years and decades to come. Small identical villages were visible every so often in the middle of this nowhere land, not seemingly connected by any major roads. “No filming,” my flight attendant told me, as I positioned my camera outside my window. On the plane, they tried to sell me “Royal Blood-Fresh,” a soybean extract for thrombosis (“Who says you can’t grow younger and cleverer”); I didn’t purchase any. We were provided with the local newspaper, with strict instructions not to fold them in a way which hurt the image of the country’s leaders on front. In-flight entertainment was a sole screen playing a concert recording of a young girl in military uniform singing passionately, although I am not sure about what. Her airy singing filled the plane, giving an extremely ominous aura in the moments leading to touch down. Finally, we hit the runaway, the only airplane in site. We were in the DPRK; we were in North Korea.

There was a snowstorm the previous night, so hundreds of workers were furiously plowing snow to make way for planes. It goes to show how low wages are, or practically nonexistent, when it is less expensive to hire so many people than simply to use machine plows. The airport was completely empty, except for the people on our flight who were either other members of the tour group, Russian diplomats, or local businessmen returning from workshops and such in China. I had to change my phone to reflect the 30-minute time change from Beijing, apparently originally made in order to differentiate it from Japan. The airport was white and clean and stark, empty except for a small Duty Free packed with tobacco and whisky and a small coffee shop with Nescafé, and plastic greenery every so often to add some color to the otherwise plain building. Soldiers patrolled the area, studying foreigners as they collected their luggage. Customs was surprisingly easy; I kept being afraid that someone would suddenly realize I was American and send me home, but luckily that moment never came. Officers asked to see my books, my computer, my phone, and while they didn’t search them as I was warned, apparently they took hours going through the belongings of the people who came to Pyongyang over train while searching for any offensive or problematic materials. Outside the airport, the area looked like a lost relic from Soviet times, every car dating back to the 60s in pastel colors straight from a Wes Anderson movie.


We were hustled into a tour bus out of the negative degree weather, while being introduced to our Korean hosts. Our guide, Kim, began by telling us the history of the DPRK (I noted how she never explicitly used the name North Korea). Each house we passed by was identical out in the countryside, each a pale pink buried in the snow, all with frozen lakes somewhat nearby.

“Do you want to hear a traditional Korean joke?” Kim asked us.

“Okay: Father and son are quarrelling because son is stupid and doesn’t know one plus one equals two. One day, the son’s teacher scolds the father for not teaching his son enough when growing up, so the father tells the son that he must learn more and would be tested the next day. The day after, the father asks son what one plus one equals, and the son said he learned it, but had already forgot! You idiot, the father yelled, one plus one, what does it equal? What do you get when you put you and me together? The son immediately responded: Two idiots!”

After some polite laughs, Kim proceeded to tell us the rules of the trip:

  • No folding newspapers on the face of the leaders
  • Pictures must be of the full leaders, without cropping
  • No posing in pictures with the leaders
  • No photos of military checkpoints or of soldiers
  • No photos of individuals
  • No going anywhere without a guard
  • No spreading religion
  • No trying to find Internet - “research centers may pick up your signal and give us a fine,” Kim warned.

I was mostly focused on the photography rules, especially as I was going to be taking the 23 hours train back to Beijing and knew that my photos would be searched. Our bus left the rural areas and arrived in Pyongyang, which was drastically different than I had expected. We got out and began to walk the streets, passing by tall building covered in lights and hoards of people returning home after work. In the DPRK, people work from 8 to 6, with a long lunch break during which people nap in order to improve productivity, I was instructed. The masses blended together, with everyone wearing a variation of the same black or dark brown jacket with matching black or dark brown pants (not jeans, however, because that would be too American). We passed by a large copy of the Arch de Triumph, which Kim proudly said was larger than the original in Paris. Hundreds of cars zoomed down the highways in what I assumed to be rush hour, past the colorful buildings and shops on the streets. Large building complexes were being demolished, with construction sites every couple of streets. Kim explained that all houses prior to 2014 were to be torn down and rebuilt with newer, modern versions. We began to talk about our lives and where I’m from and such, and I asked Kim why she had decided to become a tour guide. She looked down at first and gave a little laugh, and finally said that she hadn’t; she went to school for tourism, and the school chose her to become a guide. She had no choice in the matter, she explained, most people in the country did not get a decision in their career. Pyongyang nightlife doesn’t exist, the bars close before nine, and people want to get back to their families although there is no state enforced curfew. We passed by dozens of statues and mammoth portraits of Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il, illuminated with power that any of the dimly lit shops we were passing would die for. After exploring the elaborate and surprisingly beautiful architecture for quite a while, we returned to the bus and made our way to the hotel.

The group of individuals on this tour is interesting, representing nearly the entire Anglophone world, from South Africa, England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, and Iceland, along with people from Peru, Mexico, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, and little me from Canada. There were 20 of us in total, a mix of middle aged men, recently graduated students, and travelers in their twenties. Nearly everyone was traveling alone, except for two Italian brothers and a South African family – the son, a 19 year old who worked as a software developer in China instead of going to university had surprised his parents the day before the trip by taking them to the info session and saying “guess where we’re going!” While some people were actually interested in the area, most were just looking for adventure, something wild to tell their friends back home.


The hotel was lavish, all the workers being women in matching beautiful traditional colorful dresses. Our dinner looked like it belonged at a wedding reception, with flashing party lights hooked up to the ceiling (genuinely thought I was going to have a seizure) hanging over the ballroom with oil paintings of North Korea fully covering each wall. The women presented us with free flowing beer and course after course of delicious food; I felt as if we were receiving more food than was available in the entire country. My table broke into laughter after few seconds, joking about codenames for the countries we were discussed (South Korea = K, North Korea = KK, USA = KKK, and Japan = Sushi), asking the waitress if she had a tinder (she didn’t respond), if she would sing for us (she did not), and general jokes about all our different homes and accents and cultures.

Eventually we broke off into our individual rooms, decked out with full sized refrigerators, heated beds, and luckily, no propaganda posters.

I Got Scammed! // 5 Things to Know When Visiting China by Safia Southey

I'm writing this because I came to Beijing dramatically unprepared, and I don't want anyone to follow in my footsteps!

1) Download several VPNs  

Simple, right? Not so! I downloaded a VPN but it's actually blocked now that I'm in the country, and it seems to be that way for most VPNs available. I would try to find an alternative solution, but sadly Google is blocked here making it a little difficult to find anything that isn't easily accessible on Bing. Other things that are blocked? No facebook, instagram, twitter, gmail (I have over 20 missed emails and whoever knows me knows me will know how much anxiety that brings me) and worst of all - Google Maps.

2) Carry a map


I often joke about how I don't understand how people could travel without Google Maps and that I would be clueless without it, and it turns out I was right! I got completely lost on my way home, desperately searching for anybody who could point me in the right direction. Sadly, the only address I had was in English, leading to laughs instead of assistance, leading me to my next point...

3) You're not going to fit in - and that's fine

This has been one of the strangest places as a tourist in my experience. Having been stopped over 5 times today to take selfies with random locals, I've also been laughed at numerous times for my shoddy use of chopsticks, attempt to pronounce Chinese words, and at my assumption that people might speak English. Fun fact: nobody speaks English - not police officers, shop workers, or restaurant owners - trust me, I spent half an hour trying to order food using a translator on my phone (not Google translate, sadly, because of course that's blocked). Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting everyone to speak English wherever I go, it's just something to keep in mind when traveling over here. 

4) Don't get scammed...


So these really nice ladies stopped me in the subway station because they wanted to practice their English; how nice! They walked me around Tiananmen Square, and then we went for tea and talked about school and their jobs and lives and such, they gave me lots of compliments, it was really nice. At the end, they made me pay for like half of it? Which was fair, but a little annoying because I'm a poor college student and tea is more expensive than food here. Then we parted ways, but when I got back to my hostel I see:

"Beware Tea Selling Scam
You may be approached by girls asking you to come and teas for free or pay separately. However at the end they will try and make you pay!"

I got scammed! For tea! Horrendous! Other scams include art students making you buy overly priced gifts, absurdly expensive fake tour guides, men getting you to pay for karaoke, and general pickpockets. Keep aware! 

5) Know what's going on in your area!


Familiarize yourself with the local transport, the food, the events and shows and concerts and whatnot. And explore, get lost! I got on a random subway, found the major monuments, and luckily happened to stumble upon a big military parade and flag show. Would have been better if I actually did research, but still an amazing experience! Put yourself out there, see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City especially, talk to locals and find the cool spots that you may not know as just a random tourist. I especially enjoyed the Dongsi Subdistrict, lots of cool restaurants and shops. 

Overall, Beijing is a beautiful city full of culture, history, and delicious food. While difficult to navigate at times, a visit is completely worth it. The night life is bright and fun, and the streets are constantly bustling and alive. There are fun markets and each neighborhood has its own individual attitude, reminding me of New York in a lot of ways. It's big, and can feel lonely at times, but I look forward to coming back and spending a more solid amount of time in this thriving city.